Kashgar -> Irkeshtam -> Sary-Tash -> Osh -> Bishkek.
The road signs were all now in Mandarin, Uighur, English and Russian. It would be two days until we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, yet the excitement of a new country filled us with energy. There are two international border posts near Kashgar, the Torugart Pass – stunning and stunningly expensive due to Chinese permit requirements, and Irkeshtam where the Chinese border checkpoint is in Ulugqat – 142 kilometres from the actual border. As I have often said, things in China are rarely based on logic. We chose Irkeshtam and pedalled out of Kashgar early in the morning hoping to make it to somewhere near Ulugqat. Two days earlier as we cycled the last 20kms downhill into Kashgar, we expressed our dread at the 20km backtrack to the turnoff. Funny how after some rest, what we thought would be a painful climb was now a quick morning cycle. Since Google Maps last visited the area, a new road (an extension of the ‘dirty 30’) has been built – right through the centre of many small Uighur villages. As usual the road has been fenced with barbed wire and trying to get off the road to purchase food and drinks was difficult. So too was getting back on, therefore we cycled along the secondary road for a while and just as we found an entry ramp the skies opened up and it started hailing. While golf ball sized pieces of ice fell from the sky, we scrambled down an embankment to sit it out in a irrigation tunnel. Now we had experienced it all – searing heat to constant rain, dust storms to hail storms.
That evening as we sat watching the rain storms roll in over the mountains, the last of our stove fuel ran out (thanks to the petrol paranoia) and dinner was cooked on a fire that had to be constantly tended to. Our love for China was waning and the next day it was skating on thin ice. First there was the final flat tyre on the ‘Dirty 30’ 2 kilometres from Ulugqat; at the checkpoint we were to discover that they had banned hitching rides in trucks to the border; now we had to hire two taxis (at twenty times the price of a truck) to the border so that our three bikes would fit; the officials at the checkpoint sat us in a waiting room for over an hour for an unspecified reason; they wanted to x-ray all our gear and bikes before leaving but didn’t look at the screen (we refused to dismantle the bikes to put them through the machine); our driver displayed the usual fantastic driving skills that all Chinese seem to possess (most of our trip was spent on the wrong side of the road); when we made it to the actual border the officials were on their three hour lunch break; and after spending an hour sitting around, approximately 50 metres from the crossing, our driver raced to the border and gave us less than five minutes to unpack our bikes and gear and put them together as he had to hand in our paperwork. By the time we had cycled the five kilometres through no-mans land we weren’t sure what to expect on the other side, but it had to be better than what we had left. And it was!
Kyrgyzstan is paradise. The change is immediate. The landscape is no longer a barren desert with brown hills, but green fields and rivers surrounded by snow capped peaks. You can actually drink the water from the streams. You can buy petrol without needing a permission slip from the police. You can camp wherever you want – so we did. After purchasing some fuel from a small village about 5 kilometres from the border, we pedalled up a hill and decided that our first camp in Kyrgyzstan should be on an open grassy plain with a view of all the mountains surrounding us. We celebrated with cups of tea and a hearty dinner. Basking in such beauty we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.
Sary-tash is the closest big village to the border and our next place to pick up food supplies. Being only 80 kilometres away we assumed we would be there by the next afternoon. Kyrgyzstan would teach us that our perception of our cycling speed and distance would need some serious adjusting. Xinjiang had been relatively flat and over the last month we had lost our ‘hill legs’. This too would need some serious work which we discovered as soon as we set off in the morning. We undulated over hills, down into valleys, just to climb back up the next hill. The gradients were steeper than anything we had encountered since Laos, usually about 9% for all you cyclists and engineers. Altitude was also playing its part, as we had climbed while driving the 142km to the border. As our legs and lungs burnt, our eyes feasted on the never ending grandeur of the countryside. The snow capped 6,000m peaks that border with Tajikistan were on our left, rocky smaller peaks to our right, a red river below us and green rolling hills between. By lunchtime we came to the end of a climb that had been going on for a couple of hours. From here we sailed down into a grassy valley dotted with yurts and animals. The summer life of the nomads was in full swing as they rode their horses and donkeys, herded their livestock and milked their horses to make the country specialty – kumuz (fermented mares milk). Greetings were exchanged with everyone we met and the kids were super excited when we passed by.
By mid afternoon it was decided that we were in no hurry and that a grassy patch next to the river looked particularly inviting. I also had some bike maintenance to attend to – my chain was sounding as if it was about to snap and my rear breaks weren’t working. The tents were pitched and we settled in to the slow life. More cups of tea, some tinkering with the bike, some reading and writing, some staring at the scenery and more cups of tea. Heavenly.
Morning life in Sary-tash was just kicking off as we rode in. Needing supplies we stopped at the first magazin (what they call the local shops here) and squealed with delight at all the produce we could buy. Cheese, they actually had cheese!!! Now I knew we were in paradise. It would be another few days until we reached Osh and we didn’t know about the availability of food along the road, so we stocked up on all the staples and a few extra treats – yes cheese and chocolate are back on the menu. Then it was time to find second breakfast. A little restaurant on the village outskirts was the only place open and fortunately the ladies cooking was excellent. We had been warned prior to coming that the meals in Kyrgyzstan were meat heavy and they weren’t wrong. Stew of mutton, dumplings with mutton or plov (rice with mutton). My inner vegetarian wasn’t sure what to do.
Two passes awaited us as we pedalled out of Sary-tash, the first at 3550m and the second at 3615m. A dog from the restaurant had decided to join us and he enjoyed himself padding along side our bikes and then chasing birds and critters in the fields next to us. Watching him run with unadulterated joy and abandon, it reminded me of how I feel cycling. By the time we had reached the first pass we were over 15km from Sary-tash and the dog was still showing no signs of going home. Luckily, as we sped down the hill we were able to wave goodbye to our four legged friend who couldn’t keep up. The next climb was easier and 200 metres from the top a truck waved me down and offered us a lift first to Osh and then to Bishkek. I was hesitant initially but when the others arrived we made a group decision to catch a ride to save ourselves riding the same route twice (we will return this way to cycle through Tajikistan).
Mohamed helped us to load our bikes in the back and we jumped into the most deluxe truck cabin I have ever seen. I must admit that if it wasn’t so luxurious I would have been more upset about the fantastic downhill we were missing. When Mohamed stopped for prayer time we had a wash in the river next to the mosque, an hour later he pulled over and made fresh Brazilian coffee for us, we abused the police when they pulled him over just to collect a bribe (police corruption is huge here), and an hour out of Osh he out manouvered us by buying a melon and Snickers for us when we wanted to get him a watermelon to eat that night when his fasting ended (due to Ramadan). Unfortunately Mohamed was heading to Bishkek, just not for a few days. So we had him drop us off at the turn-off just before Osh and after Jude turned down his second marriage proposal (don’t tell people in Central Asia you’re not married), we pedalled into town to enjoy some R&R city style.
After the soulless mega-cities of China, Osh was a breath of fresh air. Old buildings stand side by side with Soviet era greyness, people swim in the river that runs through the centre of town, couples walk in the shade of tree filled parks and children play on the footpaths. The bazaar is made from shipping containers and it’s bustling with people buying and selling everything from spices to t-shirts with the Kyrgyzstan flag, the most delicious pecans in the world to the handmade felt hats that the local men wear. Men and women sit on day beds in outdoor restaurants drinking cold beers while shashliks are being barbequed over coals nearby. Women sit on the side of the road with big kegs of iced tea, kvass or kefir, and locals stand around drinking it to provide relief from the heat of the day. Mashutkas (the local minibuses) are the only things that seems to be in a hurry here and the pervasive feeling is one of relaxed calm. We spent our days chatting with other travellers in the rose lined garden of the TES guesthouse, wandering the bazaar, swimming in the river, and drinking cold beers and eating shashliks at our favourite restaurant in the local park. As the song goes ‘Summertime and the living is easy’.
While in Osh we made a plan for our remaining three weeks in Kyrgyzstan. Visas needed to be applied for in Bishkek and as most of the ones for Central Asia are date specific we needed to map out the next few months too. It was decided that we would catch a shared minivan to Bishkek to get all of the admin stuff sorted and then we could skip over to Karakol, a town on Lake Ysyk-Kol, and from there we would cycle back to Osh and then on to Tajikistan to cycle the Pamir Highway. The following morning we squeezed into the minivan with four others and a baby, our luggage piled in the back and our bikes strapped to the roof. Bishkek was a whole days drive away and from the backseat we would learn that the drivers here are crazier than the ones in China. For 12 hours we sweated in the back, our legs aching from not moving, wishing we were cycling through the stunning countryside that we were passing by at breakneck speed. But we made it and that night we pitched our tents in the backyard of Nomad’s Home guesthouse, the place we would call home for the next five days.
Bishkek is a fun, vibrant city that we cruised about exploring on our bikes. Grey soviet buildings are hidden by the myriad of parks that dominate the city. The errands we had to perform found us cycling through all parts of town, bouncing our bikes along the back streets in desperate need of repair, the houses reminding us of the older suburbs in Melbourne. After spending the last 11 months in Asia it was nice to again somewhat blend in with the locals, as the population of Kyrgyzstan cities are as culturally diverse as those of home. Being Eid al-Fitr embassy opening times were changed and luckily we still managed to procure our Tajikistan visa. To enter the Pamir Highway requires a different permit (a GBAO) which normally corresponds with your visa dates. Unfortunately the embassy was only issuing one week long GBAO permits at this time (later that week it was only 5 days or not at all). The route we want to cycle will take us at least three to four weeks so we have employed an agency to help us procure a longer permit – we will only find out the length in 10 days time. Besides running errands and catching up on all the little things (like this blog) we have spent a good amount of time just relaxing and hanging out with other travellers. It really feels like a home away from home, another reason Kyrgyzstan continues to be paradise.